Should we hope that people who are ill will be miraculously healed by God? It seems that the gifts of the Holy Spirit given to the Church at Pentecost are all but forgotten today, especially the gift of healing. Christians are not limited to science, are they? God is still God, and He gave gifts to His Church. Jesus raised people from the dead. The Apostles worked signs and wonders. Where are the signs and wonders today? (Cf. Acts 4) Where are our bishops, the successors of the Apostles, healing God’s people today?
The questioner seems distressed at the lack of expressed faith in the Church today in Jesus’s wonder-working power. If there is any deficiency today, I suggest it is more often a lack of faith not just in miracles, but in all the creedal mysteries. If the never-ending sad revelations in the Church tell us anything it’s that there are not a few even among Christians who no longer believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus.
At the same time, my Catholic journey – I’m a 1983 convert – has shown me a different facet of the Church’s face. I’ve had the good pleasure of associating with loads of people, including numerous priests, who acknowledge the gifts of the Spirit and place great faith – and at times undue expectation – in Jesus’ healing power.
So rather than replying to your distress, my reply will be more geeky and theological.
For purposes of our discussion, a miracle is something done supernaturally, that is, an effect caused by divine power. It may be mediated by non-divine beings, such as angels or humans, but God is the one who brings it about. To use a technical term, he is its “efficient cause.” (This implies that when malign spirits cause extraordinary effects, as proper to their angelic natures, these shouldn’t be called miracles.)
I divide the inquiry into three questions.
Does God cause miracles today like the ones we see in the Acts of the Apostles?
Yes, he does. A simple Google search will bring up many accounts from around the world of Jesus’ name being invoked to raise people from the dead, miraculously multiply food and heal people of all kinds of afflictions. And unless one rejects out of hand the possibility of miracles, the evidence in many of these cases – though of course not all – is quite credible.
We know, too, of the plenteous accounts of miraculous healings in the biographies of the saints. We know that the ecclesial process of canonization relies on two miracles – stringently verified – as evidence of a person’s heavenly intercession. And we know that most canonization miracles involve miraculous healings.
Should we hope that God will miraculously cure everyone who is afflicted in body or soul?
Yes. But we should not expect it. Why not? For two reasons.
First, because God has not told us to expect it. Although Scripture tells us that God gave the Twelve – and hence their Successors – power and authority to heal the sick (Lk. 9:1; Matt. 10:1), and though we see multiple instances where signs and wonders accompany the disciples’ proclamation of Jesus Christ (Acts 4; Lk. 10:17-19), nevertheless, Scripture nowhere says or even implies that God will grant every petition for a miraculous sign.
In fact, Jesus refers to the generation that seeks for signs as “evil and adulterous” (Matt. 16:4), and says to those who command miracles but don’t do the Father’s will, “I never knew you.” (Matt. 7:22-23)
Scripture testifies that Jesus’s miracles, and the miracles that Christians perform in his name, serve one principal purpose: to offer evidence for Christ’s identity so as to catalyze people’s faith. (Acts 2:22, Acts 3:1-4:4; Jn. 5:36, 10: 25). Jesus claimed he was the Messiah (Matt. 16:17), the Son of God (Matt. 26:63-64), and even took for himself the holy name of God. (Jn. 8:51-58) If indeed we can’t accept the claims he makes by his words, claims that are extremely difficult to accept at face value, then we may believe when we see his extraordinary works. (Jn. 10:38)
Thus Vatican II teaches:
This plan of revelation is realized by deeds and words having an inner unity: the deeds wrought by God in the history of salvation manifest and confirm the teaching and realities signified by the words, while the words proclaim the deeds and clarify the mystery contained in them. (Dei Verbum2).
Recall the healing of the paralyzed man. Jesus sees the faith of his friends and says to the man his sins are forgiven. Jewish leaders mutter to themselves that Jesus is blaspheming. Knowing their thoughts, Jesus rebukes them and asserts: which is easier to say, your sins are forgiven or rise and walk? He then turns to the paralytic and commands him to rise and go home. The man is healed. (Matt. 9:2-8; cf. Jn. 11:42)
The message is obvious. Though the forgiveness of sins is the harder of the two, Jesus can do both. And he does the one – he heals – to illustrate that he not only can forgive sins, but that the forgiveness of sins is central to his mission.
The second reason is experience. Those who hope in God to heal the sick know from experience that the vast majority of prayers for miraculous healings go unanswered, at least as asked. This should not be taken, or not always taken, as a sign of lack of faith, but rather an expression of God’s will. As the Catechism notes, God heals, yes, but he only heals some, not all. (nos. 1505, 1508)
What is the role of bishops in promoting healing?
It is central. As the Apostles received from Jesus the command to heal the sick, their successors carry on the apostolic charge. The sacraments are the ordinary means by which the Church fulfills this command. The Letter of James says:
Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. (Js. 5:14-15)
This is a Biblical warrant for the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. This sacrament together with the Sacrament of Penance is known as a “sacrament of healing.” (see CCC, 1421) Whenever these are administered, they are so done by the authority of the Successors of the Apostles.
As to whether those Successors believe in Jesus’s power to heal . . . each tree is known by its own fruit.
*Image:Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple by Benjamin West, 1817 [Penn Art Collection , University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia]